Film Torments: The King’s Speech (2010)
A CONTROVERSIAL pick for tonight’s Oscar-themed Torment, though perhaps not an unprecedented one. Here’s Jozef’s take on 2010’s The King’s Speech.
Film Torments has had some bad films, this goes without saying. The entire feature couldn’t work if the films weren’t bad – they are meant to ‘torments’, after all – but I have never truly hated a film on this feature. I can’t say I’ve forgiven myself for watching Jingle All The Way 2 but, the truth is, a bad film but it never had a chance, it was always going to be bad.
This brings us to The King’s Speech, a film based on a well-regarded play, from the director of the fantastic The Damned United, with a ridiculously starry cast including: Colin Firth, Helena Bonham Carter, Geoffrey Rush, Guy Pearce, Timothy Spall, Eve Best, Derek Jacobi and the daughter from Outnumbered. It boasts 94% on Rotten Tomatoes, 12 Oscar nominations and seven wins. It is a film that should not only be good but, to almost absurd lengths, it screams at you about how good it should be. Yet here it is.
I hate this film. I truly hate it. You can present everything listed above as reasons as to why you enjoy it and, hey, that’s fine. You, humble reader, are entitled to your opinion, but I hate this film more than almost anything else I’ve ever seen. Do I have your attention? Good, let’s begin.
As is standard for my level of interest, here’s a paragraph from wikipedia to fill you in on any information about the film you need:
The King’s Speech is a 2010 British historical drama film directed by Tom Hooper and written by David Seidler. Colin Firth plays King George VI who, to cope with a stammer, sees Lionel Logue, an Australian speech and language therapist played by Geoffrey Rush. The men become friends as they work together, and after his brother abdicates the throne, the new King relies on Logue to help him make his first wartime radio broadcast on Britain’s declaration of war on Germany in 1939.”
Well there you go, information dump done, let’s continue.
On a basic filmmaking level, the film is quite awful. For a film that won a Best Cinematography Oscar, it probably shouldn’t make me feel ill watching it. The film seems to be shot from weirdly uncentered close-ups, uncomfortably low Dutch angles and mid-shot drifting. It makes everything feel like you’re drunkenly staring at a weird version of Chariots of Fire. When you watch the ‘dramatic’ final scene, the way they frame Geoffrey Rush around the microphone makes him appear like a benevolent spectre haunting Colin Firth.
It hints almost at a different version of the film in which Logue is re-positioned as a torturer forcing King George in a Stockholm Syndrome-esque friendship which sounds like a far more interesting film. The actual dialogue itself isn’t the worst, but there’s nothing particularly memorable about it. Structurally, we know that the film is working towards an uplifting final scene but, in order to get to it, it must wade through two hours of muddy plodding and workman-like inserting of ‘setbacks’ and ‘peril’ for our hero to overcome. It’s the kind of script that wants to be treated as human and warm so throws in ‘humour’ but forgets that swear words on their own can’t be disguised as wit. As Mike said in Breaking Bad: “Just because you shot Jesse James, don’t make you Jesse James.”
I talked earlier about the ridiculous cast and I would like to take a quick moment to give credit to Guy Pearce and Helena Bonham Carter; as actors they are nearly good enough to make me care about Royals, Pearce especially capturing a certain glamorous swagger that make you wish the film was about his Prince Edward (then again, that was the plot of Madonna’s W.E., so maybe not). Firth and Rush both give incredibly sympathetic portrayals that seem to offer no deeper thoughts than: “Royals are people too”, “Foreigners are still considered second-class citizens” and, “We really like Oscars.”
It’s as if every movement they make is intended to show just how incredibly redundant the entire exercise is. We get Derek Jacobi as a pompous Archbishop and Michael Gambon as an emotionally distant, bullying father. We get Eve Best and Jennifer Ehle being completely wasted in little more than nothing roles. This is the kind of film that has no interest in saying anything so, for the most part, the actors hit their beats and keep moving.
That is, apart from Timothy Spall. In what may count as the weakest performance of his career, his portrayal of Winston Churchill is at it’s best a thin poorly conceived caricature and at its worst makes you wonder if Timothy Spall even knew he was being filmed. He becomes emblematic of the rest of the film: a poorly considered exercise in balancing restraint and excess, resulting in both giving the audience cake and shoving their head into it until they enjoy it or just choke on it.
My biggest question of all is: Why should I give a shit about any of this? I’m trying to avoid being too anti-monarchist in this article but the film suffers for me the same reason I don’t care about Citizen Kane; I look at it and think: “You have problems? Well boo hoo, you billionaire.” I have empathy with the contextual idea that the writer, David Seidler, related to King George because as a child, he also suffered from a stutter. When I see the King struggling with it, however, I still fail to have any sympathy because he is the King – even if it all goes wrong, he lives in a palace, multiple palaces.
The stakes are infinitely lowered because everyone in the film seems to be so preposterously wealthy and supported that they aren’t even worried about the fact that the speech is leading to a declaration of war. There is no understanding or compassion for the millions who were going to die as a result (not just of this but partially because) of the speech he gives. We are meant to cheer for the man who sent boys off to die along with the fictionalised crowds of cheering onlookers of Buckingham Palace and Winston Churchill and Neville Chamberlain looking on approvingly like the Jedi ghosts at the end of Return of the Jedi.
This isn’t what happened. This was a quiet, sobering moment in what was regarded by Evelyn Waugh as one that “will go down in history as the most disastrous [reign] my country has known since Matilda and Stephen.” It is the desire of the film to please the bunting-hanging, flag-waving, jam bun street party-holding populists by giving in to the cult of royalty and presenting a flawless portrayal of Winston Churchill (as in literally without flaws); acknowledging his sympathies with Hitler would ruin the film’s perversely anglo-phillic narrative.
I keep returning to that word: ‘History’. History exists to remind us what happened so we can learn from it. It’s not there to be adapted to make an innocuous piece of fluff to send the royalists happily off to slumber. This isn’t history. History was families gathering round the wireless and hearing this speech knowing just twenty years before, their men had gone off to die in distant fields and now it was happening again. I’m not saying that films can’t adapt stories for an emotional purpose but there becomes a point where the story changes so much that it isn’t even worth telling anymore.
I hated this film, I hated this film like Ebert hated North (Roger, out of interest gave this film his full four stars), and I feel like any time I try to tell people this, someone is ready to tell me I’m wrong. I wanted to write this article because this isn’t even a film routinely written about as a bad one but it’s a piece of treacly, sentimental, exploitative royal vomit that leaves as nasty a taste in my mouth as that image would suggest.
Yes, I know this isn’t the worst film in the world, and it’s hardly the worst film of 2010, but few others have left me feeling so utterly demoralised about the idea of cinema. Make me watch the trilogy of Atlas Shrugged adaptations, make me watch the next ten Scary Movies, make me watch the Julian Fellowes-scripted, Andrew Lloyd Webber-scripted School of Rock musical – just promise me I can bury this film away in its little cynical, jingoistic bullshit box and not watch it again.
In case of anyone who wants a tl;dr (yeah, I know internet acronyms), I’d like to give a big fuck you to the Weinsteins for producing this, to Tom Hooper for directing and a great royal fuck you to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, you worthless Hollywood circle jerk. I won’t be watching this year or probably any year as long as you consider this kind of middlebrow rubbish to be the ‘best of the year’. Good luck and burn in hell. Now, play me out Orchestra.